The Return of Coach Mac
Wildcat football coach back in business after medical leave
For all the bad news that broke in March, there were a few bright lights coming out of UNH athletics. Swimmer Anna Metzler ’22 earned a spot at the NCAA championships after setting a new school record in the 400-meter individual medley relay. Emma Woodhouse ’20 and Patrick Kenney ’21 turned in standout performances during the first two days of the NCAA skiing championships. And head football coach Sean McDonnell ’78 was back from medical leave.
Coach Mac with the football team
Greg Greene
In August 2019, a week before the start of McDonnell’s 21st season at the helm of the UNH football program, he announced that a medical leave of absence would force him from the sidelines. Former Wildcat standout Ricky Santos ’07, who had joined the team as the associate head coach and quarterbacks coach months earlier, stepped in as interim head coach and led the team to a 6-5 record, 5-3 in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).

And while the ‘Cats battled it out on the gridiron, McDonnell took on a battle of his own — against bladder cancer. “It was tough,” he says, “but everything they told me needed to happen and was going to happen has happened. The people at Mass General were unbelievable and the people at Wentworth-Douglass were off the charts with everything they did.”

After months of grueling treatment, McDonnell was given medical clearance to resume his position as head coach on March 1. In typical Coach Mac fashion, he presided over a workout the same day, ready to run spring practices that were scheduled to start March 31 in anticipation of a fall season opener at Kansas on Sept. 5.

“It was awesome,” he says. “We were up on the indoor track and I was blowing a whistle and running the show again. It was a great feeling.”

Within weeks, of course, everything changed. On March 18, the university announced a shift to remote operations at the end of students’ spring break in response to COVID-19. Planned spring football practices on Bremner Field turned into home workouts and Zoom meetings with position coaches peppered with short virtual get-togethers led by McDonnell to check in on academics and morale and prepare for the fall. Then, on July 17, UNH athletics announced that no fall sports teams would compete in intercollegiate competitions in light of the ongoing pandemic, a decision that was made with league partners in the America East Conference and the CAA.

So close, and yet so far.

While McDonnell acknowledges that it was hard — and perhaps a little ironic — to prevail over his personal health crisis only to lose this season to a health threat of a completely different nature, he’s taken to calling his time away from the team a “sabbatical,” and sees the upside to it.

Coach Mac coaching up the football team
Scott Ripley
“When it all came down, I remember thinking it had been about 40 years since I didn’t play or coach in the fall. That was the hardest part,” he says. In fact, McDonnell has been an integral part of the UNH football program for more than 45 years, since arriving as a freshman from upstate New York in the mid-1970s. A three-year starter in the ‘Cats defensive backfield, he returned in the mid-80s to serve as an assistant coach under Bill Bowes, ultimately taking over as head coach from his mentor in 1999.

“I think I got the feeling every college professor gets, to recharge the batteries and reevaluate what you’re doing and maybe see things that maybe make you better while you’re on the outside looking in,” he says. “I had always planned that I would come back — that was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. The question was, ‘Can I still do it at the same level I’ve always done it?’”

For now, the answer to that question will have to wait, but McDonnell and his team are back out on Bremner, conducting practices and workouts under strict federal, state and university guidelines. UNH Athletics Director Marty Scarano is among those whose sights are firmly fixed on McDonnell’s future and that of the storied football program he led to 14 consecutive FCS playoffs between 2004 and 2017, including FCS semifinals in 2013 and 2014.

“I’m just so grateful he’s gotten through this,” Scarano says. “There were dark moments last summer and fall, but there’s still a lot to be told in the Sean McDonnell story at UNH. How cool would it be for him to be back and us to get back to the playoffs and do some damage?”

Yes, Mac is back. He just needs a football season to test his tremendous mettle against.

—Allen Lessels ’76